Listing entries tagged with Darwin

Religion and Science -- 8

posted on 12.02.2006 at 11:23 AM

Richard A. Shweder, writing in the New York Times, notes triumphantly that:

Science has not replaced religion.

If he means that lots of people in the world still attend mosques or churches, including even some people in Paris, well okay. It's true: Belief in God, has declined dramatically in Western Europe and certain other cosmopolitan redoubts, but it remains undead. And in some places -- southern Afghanistan, the White House -- it is frighteningly vibrant.

But it is absurd to claim that there hasn't been an astounding switch among much of humanity from religious explanations of the universe, of life, of disease (including mental disease), of human purpose -- a switch that has occurred since Copernicus, since Newton, since Jefferson, since Darwin, since penicillin, since Einstein, since education rates have skyrocketed and information technologies have flourished. No these lesson may not have sunk in yet in Kandahar or the West Wing, but even lots of churchgoers now believe the earth revolves around the sun and we descended from monkeys.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:23 AM | Comments (1)

Dawkins on the "Design" Argument

posted on 11.06.2006 at 9:53 AM

Here is Richard Dawkins on one of the better of the arguments for the existence of God. He's a bit unfair to it: The religious position today, rather than entirely ignoring evolution, is usually that there wasn't time for something as complex as an eye to evolve. Still, I think Dawkins is useful on the subject:

The only one of the traditional arguments for God that is widely used today is the teleological argument, sometimes called the Argument from Design although -- since the name begs the question of its validity -- it should better be called the Argument for Design. It is the familiar 'watchmaker' argument, which is surely one of the most superficially plausible bad arguments ever discovered -- and it is rediscovered by just about everybody until they are taught the logical fallacy and Darwin's brilliant alternative.
In the familiar world of human artifacts, complicated things that look designed are designed. To naíve observers, it seems to follow that similarly complicated things in the natural world that look designed -- things like eyes and hearts -- are designed too. It isn't just an argument by analogy. There is a semblance of statistical reasoning here too -- fallacious, but carrying an illusion of plausibility. If you randomly scramble the fragments of an eye or a leg or a heart a million times, you'd be lucky to hit even one combination that could see, walk or pump. This demonstrates that such devices could not have been put together by chance. And of course, no sensible scientist ever said they could. Lamentably, the scientific education of most British and American students omits all mention of Darwinism, and therefore the only alternative to chance that most people can imagine is design.
Even before Darwin's time, the illogicality was glaring: how could it ever have been a good idea to postulate, in explanation for the existence of improbable things, a designer who would have to be even more improbable? The entire argument is a logical non-starter, as David Hume realized before Darwin was born. What Hume didn't know was the supremely elegant alternative to both chance and design that Darwin was to give us. Natural selection is so stunningly powerful and elegant, it not only explains the whole of life, it raises our consciousness and boosts our confidence in science's future ability to explain everything else.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:53 AM | Comments (3)

I May Be with Ann Coulter on This One

posted on 08.19.2006 at 12:32 PM

In his wise and clever dismemberment of Ann Coulter's Godless, biologist Jerry Coyne falls back at one point on the usual nice-nice argument that there's no conflict between evolution and religion:

The real reason Coulter goes after evolution is not because it's wrong, but because she doesn't like it -- it doesn't accord with how she thinks the world should be. That's because she feels, along with many Americans, that "Darwin's theory overturned every aspect of Biblical morality." What's so sad -- not so much for Coulter as for Americans as a whole -- is that this idea is simply wrong. Darwinism, after all, is just a body of thought about the origin and change of biological diversity, not a handbook of ethics. (I just consulted my copy of The Origin of Species, and I swear that there's nothing in there about abortion or eugenics, much less about shtupping one's secretary.)

Technically, of course, he's right: Darwin isn't challenging Biblical morality. But he is challenging many of the claims made in the Bible, as Darwin, himself, anxiously recognized -- even wondering, in his notebooks, how he might present his theory and still "avoid stating how far I believe in Materialism." And if the Bible ain't all true wouldn't the ethical system that rests (albeit precariously) upon it be expected to totter a bit?

(Sorry, I realize Jay Saul was kindly trying to pull me out of the Coulter quicksand, but this question continues to intrigue.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:32 PM | Comments (17)

Great Moments in Religion: 1

posted on 07.13.2006 at 11:50 PM

Universe created on October 23, 4004 BCE. This is from A Geological Miscellany by G. Y. Craig and E. J. Jones:

James Ussher (1581-1656), Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland, and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College in Dublin was highly regarded in his day as a churchman and as a scholar. Of his many works, his treatise on chronology has proved the most durable. Based on an intricate correlation of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean histories and Holy writ, it was incorporated into an authorized version of the Bible printed in 1701, and thus came to be regarded with almost as much unquestioning reverence as the Bible itself. Having established the first day of creation as Sunday 23 October 4004 BC..., Ussher calculated the dates of other biblical events, concluding, for example, that Adam and Eve were driven from Paradise on Monday 10 November 4004 BC [making their stay almost as short as some of my recent vacations], and that the ark touched down on Mt Ararat on 5 May 2348 BC `on a Wednesday'.

I should add that Ussher's chronology was widely accepted in England in 1859, when Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species was published.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:50 PM | Comments (0)

The Origin of the Species

posted on 07.08.2006 at 8:23 PM

In 1859 in England, Charles Bradlaugh was on the stump, attacking religion before huge working-class crowds; John Stuart Mill published On Liberty ("If all mankind minus one were of one opinion and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind") and Charles Darwin published his book. Not a bad year.

Here are some historians (none of whom I've heard of) on the importance of The Origin of the Species, which some still insist can sit comfortably next to Christianity:

The Origin of the Species came into the theological world like a plough into an ant-hill -- Leo J. Henkin
I myself have little doubt that in England it was geology and the theory of evolution that changed us from a Christian to a pagan nation -- F. Sherwood Taylor
No rapproachement was possible between Darwinism as such and protestantism as such. The conceptions of Man were too divergent -- John Dillenberger
If we may estimate the importance of an idea by the change of thought which it effects, this idea of natural selection is unquestionably the most important that has ever been conceived by the mind of man -- George J. Romanes

(From The Victorian Crisis of Faith)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:23 PM | Comments (1)

Precursor to the Evolution Debate

posted on 06.25.2006 at 2:07 PM

Edward O. Wilson again, writing in Harvard Magazine last year:

In all of the history of science only one other disparity of comparable magnitude to evolution has occurred between a scientific event and the impact it has had on the public mind. This was the discovery by Copernicus that Earth and therefore humanity are not the center of the universe, and the universe is not a closed spherical bubble. Copernicus delayed publication of his masterwork On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres until the year of his death (1543). For his extension of the idea subsequently, Bruno was burned at the stake, and for its documentation Galileo was shown the instruments of torture at Rome and remained under house arrest for the remainder of his life.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:07 PM | Comments (6)

Americans, Evolution and Revelation

posted on 06.24.2006 at 12:53 PM

Hate to beat a dead horse, but the poll numbers here are truly disturbing.The biologist Edward O. Wilson (thanks to a long-ago comment by Peter):

Nothing ["nothing"?] in science as a whole has been more firmly established by interwoven factual documentation, or more illuminating, than the universal occurrence of biological evolution. Further, few natural processes have been more convincingly explained than evolution by the theory of natural selection or, as it is popularly called, Darwinism.
Thus it is surpassingly strange that half of Americans recently polled (2004) not only do not believe in evolution by natural selection but do not believe in evolution at all. Americans are certainly capable of belief, and with rocklike conviction if it originates in religious dogma. In evidence is the 60 percent that accept the prophecies of the Book of Revelation as truth,

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:53 PM | Comments (4)

Darwin and Thucydides

posted on 06.20.2006 at 7:22 PM

The obvious way to organize a history is, duh, chronologically. But, being an ambitious (or pretentious) fellow, I've had this notion that I might run another thread through this history of disbelief, that I might tell the story of the great nineteenth-century British atheist, Charles Bradlaugh, while I'm doing the history. Why (beyond ambition or pretense)? Because this extended biographical sketch would, presumably, give the reader a longer narrative to hang on to as the history follows disbelief from India to Baghdad to Spain to Amsterdam and eventually to Manhattan -- pausing for shorter narratives along the way. Readability, in other words.

I had a thought on how this might actually work while in India many months ago. The key being a connection in the second chapter -- which tracks disbelief in Egypt, India, China, Greece -- between Thucydides, the great Athenian historian, and Charles Darwin. Neither was a particularly aggressive critic of religion. My argument would be, however, that both benefited in crucial ways from the critique of religion that had gained force in their time. Could Thucydides have written his history, with its remarkable absence of supernatural explanation, without the corrosion of the Greek religion caused by the Sophists, among others? Could Darwin have written (or published) Origin of the Species without the attacks on religion of Shelley and Charles Bradlaugh, among others. Making this case would, thus, get Bradlaugh into chapter two.

That's what I'm working on now. It may very well be a bad idea -- especially since jumpiness is a potential problem. And, as usual, I've got to write it to have any idea whether I'll like it.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:22 PM | Comments (11)

Can Nonbelievers Be "Religious"?

posted on 04.07.2006 at 4:06 PM

Thomas Huxley, who invented the word agnostic to describe his and his friend Charles Darwin's variety of disbelief: thomas_huxley.jpg

"Religion ought to mean simply the reverence and love for the ethical ideal and the desire to realize that ideal in life.
"That a man should determine to devote himself to the service of humanity...this should be, in the proper sense of the word, his religion."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:06 PM | Comments (2)

Does Darwin Lead to Atheism? -- II

posted on 03.29.2006 at 9:52 PM

Madeleine Bunting is concerned with avoiding "false dichotomies between faith and science." What religious models might satisfy Bunting and "mesh with" (the phrase is from Dan Jones) evolution? Jones mentions the obvious one: God sets natural selection in motion and watches it work -- presumably devoting Himself, thereafter, just to prayer-answering and salvation-dispensing. Various wispy Gods -- God as Nature, God as metaphor, God as consciousness, etc. -- would also fit.

Wouldn't you have to ignore, or view as fiction, large portions of various holy books for more traditional versions of God to "mesh"? In the effort to avoid "dichotomies," don't you lose either a lot of God or a lot of evolution?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:52 PM | Comments (0)

Does Darwinism Lead to Atheism?

posted on 03.28.2006 at 5:56 PM

A split seems to be developing among pro-evolution (anti-intelligent design) forces, with the work of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett the major bones of contention. The selection below is from a new piece by Madeleine Bunting, an old friend in this blog, in the Guardian:


'Michael Ruse, a prominent Darwinian philosopher (and an agnostic) based in the US, with a string of books on the subject, is exasperated: "Dawkins and Dennett are really dangerous, both at a moral and a legal level." The nub of Ruse's argument is that Darwinism does not lead ineluctably to atheism, and to claim that it does (as Dawkins does) provides the intelligent-design lobby with a legal loophole: "If Darwinism equals atheism then it can't be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state. It gives the creationists a legal case. Dawkins and Dennett are handing these people a major tool."'

In his blog, The Proper Study Of Mankind, from which I learned of this latest Bunting blast, Dan Jones does a fine job of unpacking the Bunting-Rose position. He has a go at the "legal loophole," atheism-as-religion argument. But also takes on the Darwinism=atheism question: Jones concedes that "the specific claims of" science and evolution may not be "utterly incompatible with a religious conception of the universe (you can always tweak your scientific and religious models to mesh with one another)." But he contends that "scientific investigation just doesn't tend towards theism and belief in God."

This tending away from theism (and you-know-Whom) by science, while it is wrestling with creationism, throws Bunting into something of a panic:

'Across the US, a crude and erroneous conflict is being created between science as atheism and religion. It's important that Britain avoids the trap that America is falling into, not just because it endangers good science, but also because there is a fascinating debate worth having about what scientific method can reveal about faith, and what theologians have to say about science.'

Bunting is right about the scientific method shedding light on faith. That, as she acknowledges, is the point of Dennett's book. But seeing science as irreligious won't interfere with this effort. Exactly what light theologians can shed on science she neglects specify.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:56 PM | Comments (5)

The Origin of Bacteria

posted on 03.18.2006 at 10:25 AM

For some recent online debunking of the argument for intelligent design see Concerned Scientist (via Pharyngula). The point, of course, is that rather than arriving -- poof -- suddenly and inexplicably, life on earth came about through a series of comprehensible steps.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:25 AM | Comments (0)

A Golden Age of Disbelief?

posted on 03.16.2006 at 11:34 PM

Every day, every week, every month, every quarter, the most widely read journals seem just now to vie with each other in telling us that the time for religion is past, that faith is a hallucination or an infantile disease, that the gods have at last been found out and exploded. -- Max Muller, 1878

Was this -- the time of Darwin, Huxley and Bradlaugh -- indeed the golden age of disbelief? Did it end? When? Have we in fact turned back toward religion? Why? (Forgive me if I've asked such questions before. I'll probably ask them again.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:34 PM | Comments (3)

Poorly Camouflaged Retreat, cont.

posted on 03.05.2006 at 3:25 AM

Garret Keizer -- writing originally in the Los Angeles Times (thanks again to Ben Vershbow):

"The supporters of intelligent design betray their own secularist assumptions through their insistence that Darwinian evolution be taught with the disclaimer that it is "only a theory." One would assume that, from the perspective of faith, a great deal is only a theory. To apply that label exclusively to evolution suggests otherwise. It suggests that we inhabit a world of ubiquitous certainty. No one could walk on water in such a world because the molecular density of water is (unlike evolution, apparently) beyond the theoretical. Of course, that is the view of science, and the only proper view of science. One is amazed, however, to find it promulgated in the cause of religion."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:25 AM | Comments (0)

God and Science

posted on 02.28.2006 at 12:04 PM

GOD2.JPGFrom a New York Times article on the defeat (Hallelujah!) of a bill in Utah that would have "required teachers to issue a disclaimer to their students saying that not all scientists agree about evolution and the origin of species." darwin_beard.bmp

"The bill died on a 46-to-28 vote in the Republican-controlled House after being amended by the majority whip, Stephen H. Urquhart, a Mormon who said he thought God did not have an argument with science."

Glad to see, of course, that Mr. Urquhart believes God to be open minded. But I continue to wonder how the diety might square science with miracles, the afterlife and His own omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent existence.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:04 PM | Comments (1)

Flurry of Freethinking

posted on 01.26.2006 at 9:05 PM

Golden ages of disbelief?

** Athens at the time of Pericles (Protagoras, Anaxagoras, Diagoras, perhaps Thucydides).

** Paris in the 18th century (Meslier, Diderot, d'Holbach).

** London in the 19th century (Shelley, Mill, Bradlaugh, Martineau, Darwin, Huxley) orthodoxy ostensibly is resurgent. Add to publications in recent years by Jennifer Michael Hecht, Susan Jacoby and Sam Harris a new book by the philosopher Daniel Dennett on the causes of belief.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:05 PM | Comments (0)

Judge Jones -- In the 15th Century

posted on 01.18.2006 at 5:04 PM

In trying to understand the history of atheism, it is probably necessary to understand why, at times, failure to believe in the gods really did seem wacky: in Europe before Newton and Darwin, for example.

The problem: "world orderliness," Schopenhauer called it - as evidenced by the remarkable regularities of the heavenly bodies as well as the remarkable complexity and efficiency of living bodies. Explain that with your "materialism"! Tell us that is just the product of "blind chance"!

Fact is it was damn difficult -- before gravity, before evolution -- to explain the presence of order and complexity in the universe without recourse to a "divine creator."

Let's say some Judge Jones six centuries ago had been asked to rule on an effort by a school board to begin classes with a statement that there was another "theory" of creation: that all the marvels that make up the heavens and the earth just arrived by accident. Might he not have dismissed that notion as characterized by "breathtaking inanity"?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:04 PM | Comments (3)

Atheist or Agnostic?

posted on 01.01.2006 at 11:41 AM

The word "agnostic" was coined by Darwin's friend and defender Thomas Huxley in 1869 to describe their less aggressive, less certain (and safer?) version of doubt.

"In matters of the intellect," Huxley wrote, "do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith."

And here is Leslie Stephen, who also prefered this "a" word to the other one: "State any one proposition in which all philosophers agree, and I will admit it to be true; or any one which has a manifest balance of authority, and I will agree that it is probable. But so long as every philosopher flatly contradicts the first principles of his predecessors, why affect certainty?"

Stephen's daughter Virginia Woolf, though occasionally prone to emitting vague mystical noises, seems more of the atheistic persuasion: "Certainly and emphatically there is no God."

This schism (Is Huxley to Atheism what Luther was to Catholicism?) makes most sense to me in terms of the two versions of Greek, Roman and then European skepticism: The Academic school believed it wasn't possible to really know anything. The Pyrrhonian school believed it wasn't even possible to know that.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:41 AM | Comments (7)

Judge Jones' decision, continued

posted on 12.23.2005 at 11:52 PM

Back to the problematic quote in Judge John E. Jones laudable decision against requiring mention of "intelligent design" in the Dover public schools: "The theory of evolution…in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator."

Hasn't religion surrendered a whole lot if its god no longer creates the species, let alone moves the stars and planets?

"The fact that orthodox Christians so eagerly grasp the vagrant straws floating by shows that they are now content with the very smallest fragments of all that once they were positive was true" -- Clarence Darrow

Might these hazier, more abstract, less necessary views of god -- views that might be compatible with evolution and the rest of modern science -- qualify as vagrant straws, small fragments of once grand religious truths?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:52 PM | Comments (6)

Judge Jones' decision: some thoughts

posted on 12.21.2005 at 11:30 PM

** On December 20, Judge John E. Jones, a Republican, ruled that the requirement instituted by the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, that teachers read a statement presenting "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution was unconstitutional and characterized by "breathtaking inanity." Secularist might indeed find evidence here that the great, centuries-long process of accepting science, not faith, as the arbiter of truth about the natural world has not halted. After all, it wasn't so long ago that such decisions were going the other way: In the famous "Monkey Trial" in 1925, John Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee law against teaching evolution in public schools. (The case was later thrown out on a technicality.) That law was not repealed until 1967.

** However, might there also have been evidence that fundamentalism, superstition, mumbo jumbo (choose your term of abuse) or (more kindly) faith are once again on the rise in the fact that a school board in the United States in the twenty-first century could even consider instituting such a requirement?

** In his decision, Judge Jones declared that "the theory of evolution…in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator." Those of us who are interested in the history of tussles between the secular and the spiritual might want to chew over this remark a little. It certainly has a nice, genteel, pluralistic sound, but is it true?

When the theory of evolution was first promulgated, a century and a half ago, many of its supporters, as well as its opponents, did see it as a significant challenge to the foundations of religion: The problem was not so much that natural selection and a "divine creator" couldn't cohabit. It's a big universe. And we're dealing, apparently, with an endlessly mutable Deity. The problem was that Darwin's explanation of how natural selection, a mere biological process, could account for the complexity of the natural world seemed to leave little or no need for said "divine creator." Natural selection, like Newton's theory of planetary motions, seemed to make God redundant.

Newton remained a believer. Darwin didn't. And he lost his faith in those years when he was, cautiously, working out his theory. "Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate," he reports in a short memoir, "but was at last complete."

One of the quotes shuffled at this top of this blog is from the poet Shelley and a college buddy: "If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, knowledge of nature is made for their destruction." For Shelley, unlike Judge Jones, science and religion do indeed conflict. In 1811, Shelley was kicked out of Oxford University - then an even more conservative institution than the Dover school board - for saying so.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:30 PM | Comments (10)